In an article this past August, Jeremy Linneman listed a few recent headlines on loneliness. Here are a few examples:
“Surgeon General says there is a loneliness epidemic,” Washington Post.
“Young people report more loneliness than the elderly,” USA Today.
“The biggest threat facing middle-aged men isn’t smoking or obesity, it’s loneliness,” The Boston Globe.
“The surprising effects of loneliness on health,” NY Times.
“Loneliness begets more loneliness,” The Atlantic.
“How social isolation is killing us,”NY Times.
And Slate, “Social isolation kills more people than obesity.”
Now, these articles are observing that Americans are lonelier than ever, but they’re also highlighting the fact that doctors are seeing the physical effects of loneliness, not just the emotional effects. In 2001, Robert Putnam exposed the disintegration of community in America in his classic book Bowling Alone. But almost 20 years later, what Linneman is lamenting is that we are not just bowling alone, we are scrolling alone. Tapping screens has replaced actual talking to people.
Andy Crouch has given a Q Talk, an amazing talk entitled “Overcoming our Greatest Affliction.” And in that talk, he outlines the three revolutions that have made the modern world. We don’t have time to look at those today. We’ll have to do that sometime. The financial revolution, the industrial revolution, and the computational revolution have changed the way we use money, we work, and how we think about knowledge. And because of these revolutions, we have experienced an avalanche of prosperity. But what Crouch argues is we have exchanged personhood for power. We’ve exchanged personhood for power or you could even say it sometimes convenience.
Think about your latest trip to Walmart. You can actually, most of you can push a button, the garage door opens, pull out, drive to Walmart, park, maybe get a quick greeting from the Walmart greeter, walk to the right aisle, get your toothpaste, get your milk, go back. And now, what a blessing, a self-checkout section. You can slide your stuff through, flash your card, be back in your car, back in your garage, door closed without having a conversation with one person.
And I know some of you are saying that is the goal. But I don’t think we understand what a radical revolution that is. There was the day when you walked to the same store, saw people all along the way, didn’t even just flash or hand money, you exchanged an item that you both had worked to produce. Radical revolution in the disintegration of relationships. Andy Crouch argues,
“To win in the modern economy of wealth and work and knowledge is to be liberated from the conditions and connections with which you started your life. And it’s to know without being known.”
What he’s talking about there is, the higher you go in the social ladder in this economy, the chances are the more break will occur between your connections in life. In other words, the more successful you become, the greater chance the people you interact with won’t even know your parents, won’t even know your siblings, maybe won’t even know your wife or kids. And actually, that becomes the goal. You can have thousands and thousands of followers but very, very few friends, very superficial relationships.
So, in summary, technology masks loneliness while at the same time magnifies it. It masks it because we get the sense like I shouldn’t be lonely. There are so many people in my life, I have so many friends, I can text and talk on the phone in a second. So, there is no reason for me to feel lonely. And yet there is a growing sense of loneliness. Why is this relevant to us as a church as we celebrate our 27th anniversary? Well, think about our purpose – to believe, connect, share. Believe God’s Word, connect with God’s family, and share His story.
Obviously, all of that is highly relational. Let’s focus in a little bit today on that middle calling – to connect. So, if you think about it, what Jesus is calling us to as a people is the very thing the culture we live in is moving away from, yet craving. To explore this, I want us to look at 2 Timothy 4 because you will notice that loneliness is not a new thing. In 2 Timothy 4:16 Paul laments in the middle of verse 16, “All deserted me. All deserted me.” So, let’s make a few observations about this statement as we think about its context.
Number 1, Paul recognized that there are a variety of reasons why people don’t come through for us, a variety of reasons why people don’t come through for us. If you look back at verse 10 you will notice “Demas has forsaken me.” Paul says, “he loves this present world.” So, the comfort, safety, security apparently were more valuable to Demas than Christ or his people. Crescens (erse 10) has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia, Mark (verse 11) is useful but not there, Tychicus (verse 12) has been sent to Ephesus, Alexander in verses 14 and 15 did me great harm. So, we could look at other examples after this. But even these few examples communicate that Paul was left in a vulnerable place by people for a variety of reasons. Some like Demas were spiritually distracted. Others like Crescens and Titus were busy doing what God called them to do. Others like Alexander were hostile.
Number 2, Paul refused to focus on the failures of others. Verse 16,
“May it not be charged against them.”
So, Paul is acknowledging the fact that no Christian advocated for him or stood with him at his pretrial hearing. He’s on trial for preaching the gospel, he’s on trial in Rome. He’s acknowledging that no one stood with him. This is what Stott calls Paul’s Gethsemane. Like Jesus, Paul knew what it was like to be alone. But like Jesus, he was quick to overlook, quick to forgive the failures of others.
Number 3, Paul turned to the Lord when he felt alone. Verse 17,
“But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me.”
As we saw in our Elijah series, people come and go, but God comes and stays. In his moment of relational weakness, Paul found God faithful and even experienced an unexpected strengthening. Do you see that? He stood by me, and at the very moment of my greatest weakness, which as we know can spiral down into despair. For Paul, it went the opposite way.
It was actually a moment of strengthening. Which raises a big question. Could our loneliness be an invitation from our Father? Come to me. That God is speaking in our loneliness, and it is a time when for many of us it’s maybe the only time when we slow down, quiet down and listen. The key is how do we respond in that moment of loneliness? Where do our ears turn? Where do our eyes look?
David can teach us how to respond in Psalm 25:16. King David said, ”
Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted.”
Notice if you look at the verse right before that you will see where his eyes are looking.
“My eyes are ever toward the Lord, for he will pluck my feet out of the net.”
Now, this is totally counter-intuitive. This is not the way we naturally respond. When your feet are caught in a net of loneliness, where do your eyes look? To the net, right? Our eyes get fixed on our loneliness, the net of loneliness that entangles our feet so that we can somehow fix it. David is saying that does not help. My eyes are locked in on you, Lord. You untangle this net. Paul is saying the same thing. Loneliness never improves by focusing on it. It’s like an itch. The more you scratch it, the worse it gets. And loneliness is the same. So, Paul turned to the Lord when he felt alone.
Number 4, Paul linked his loneliness with God’s mission. Verse 17,
“So that through me the message might be fully proclaimed.”
Now notice the flow of Paul’s argument here. All deserted me, the Lord strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed. Loneliness does not need to be a cul-de-sac. It can actually become a path to power. A path to gospel power. There is a kind of strengthening that comes to us from the Lord when we die to our own expectations as to the way life should go, and we stop depending in an unhealthy way on the people around us. And the strength we receive fuels the mission we are called to.
Can you see how this is connected to our purpose? Look again. Believe, Connect, Share. Now again we’re focusing in on the middle. What I think we can learn from Paul’s example here is that there is a symbiotic relationship between these, and as we, if we are experiencing disconnect (which is essentially what loneliness is) that that drives us to the left back to what do we really believe?
Who do we really believe God is? What is his response to us? Is he really with us? And as we move that direction the faith that is fueled, the strengthening as Paul describes actually fuels to the right the sharing of God’s story, the advancing of the gospel. So, the very thing the enemy would like to use to shut down the people of God becomes the exact opposite. So, let’s just try to apply and explore just for a couple of minutes that symbiotic relationship between those two with a couple of observations.
First of all, when we struggle to connect, that is we experience loneliness, our faith can be strengthened, and the strengthening of our faith enables us to connect. So, in the past few years, we’ve talked about this, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Life Together, and he explores the tension. He says in chapter 3,
“Let him who cannot be alone beware of community.”
He is exposing the danger of using community as a means to hide from being alone. He says it this way.
“You cannot escape from yourself; for God has singled you out. If you refuse to be alone, you are rejecting Christ’s call to you, and you can have no part in the community of those who are called.”
So, in a strange sort of way loneliness is a necessary ingredient for true community. We have to wrestle with what it means to be alone before God before we can be a healthy member of the community. But the opposite is true. Bonhoeffer goes on to say, “Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.”
In other words, loneliness alone will be destructive. So, you could say it this way to pull that together. Community without aloneness makes us superficial. Aloneness without community makes us egotistical or narcissistic. Community without aloneness makes us superficial. Aloneness without community makes us egotistical. For many people, for many of us going to church can be a lonely experience. Even the challenge of finding a seat, maybe not knowing people around you, fearing that someone up front is going to call you to greet people around you is terrifying.
Did you see the Babylon Bee this week? They have a medical bracelet for the introvert to wear – “Do not greet.” Great image. But even for people who are surrounded with people, coming to church can still be a very lonely experience because we can look around us and get the sense that everybody else has their act together. That everybody else is happy and relationally flourishing, but inside we know it’s not the case with us. So, it can feel isolating because loneliness lies to us and makes us feel like a different kind of person than the other people around us.
Lydia Brownback in her excellent book Finding God in my Loneliness tells of a time a few years ago when she was talking to a neighbor, and it started to snow. And her neighbor began to exclaim how she was going to go home, make hot chocolate, decorate the tree, get the Christmas music going, and their family is going to have such a fun time together, and Lydia went home alone. She wrote this.
“As I stood there picturing her happy family scene, I was suddenly buried under an avalanche of overwhelming loneliness. For the first time ever, I decided against getting a Christmas tree that year. The thought of having no one with whom to unwrap each memory-laden ornament from its tissue-paper hibernation was just too depressing. A casual conversation was all it took.”
Well, a few Christmases later Lydia decided to invite a few of her girlfriends over to have a tree-trimming party, and one of her friends seemed unusually excited. And Lydia asked her,
“Why are you so excited to come to my house? You have your own tree you can decorate.You have a husband, you have children. Why would you want to come to my house?
Her friend said,
“Let me tell you how that goes.We pick a day when we’re going to do it, and I get treats prepared and Christmas music playing, and all the ornaments are set out on the table, and when I’m ready, everyone wanders in, but five minutes into it, phone calls and texts and whatever else distracts them, so they grab a cookie and disappear. I wind up decorating the tree alone every year.”
Anybody that can relate to that? Don’t say anything. You’re supposed to give the image that everything’s fine. So, you notice as long as Lydia is looking at others through the window of her own longings, her loneliness intensified. But her loneliness actually became an invitation from God. As she turned to God, she actually became united with others. She began to see it is not me in my loneliness, it is we, us. We all face loneliness in different ways. Some of the loneliest people in the world are surrounded by people. It is possible to be alone but not lonely. And it is possible to be lonely but not alone.
Loneliness lies to us. It tells us, it twists experiences and turns them in on themselves and describes us as when we experience loneliness as the reason you’re lonely is because you’re unsuccessful, unwanted, unattractive, unskilled at relationships.
But what God is saying to us today is that loneliness is actually an invitation from our Father to come. “Believe what I say about you, not the lie of loneliness.”
Secondly, when we struggle to connect, that is experience loneliness, opportunities to share the gospel can open up, and these opportunities can actually lead to connection. Again, this is that symbiotic relationship between connect and believe, and then connect and share. Loneliness is linked with our mission.
In Paul’s case, his season of loneliness opened up a door of gospel opportunity. But this is not automatic because it is counterintuitive. Loneliness typically turns us inward toward more isolation toward more self-pity. But as we turn to the Lord, he strengthens us, and then he turns us outward. And we begin to see the needs of others around us and to reach out to them. And in the end that enables us to connect in a way that we would not have expected.
One of my favorite examples of this is my assistant Susan. When she first came to North Hills, she was in what she described as a drought as a single mom, struggling spiritually. But as she turned to the Lord and found her identity and satisfaction in him, God began to put it on her heart to reach out to others. She joined LEAD. She started Mosaic, a ministry to single moms. So, what the enemy meant to her destruction, the Spirit of God flipped and turned it into an opportunity to minister to many, many women over the years.
And here’s a little ironic peace, and God doesn’t always do this. Susan was introduced to her husband Ellis by one of her co-team members in the Mosaic Ministry. When Ellis happened to be visiting from Columbia, she said you need to get to know this guy. So, I just think it’s so fascinating to me that God used her very point of weakness, loneliness, vulnerability, drought as a time to strengthen her in an unexpected way, send her to begin pouring into the lives of others, and then, in the end, pouring out his kind provision on her.
So what form does loneliness take in your life today? We all will go through a season of loneliness. You may not be in one right now, and you may think it doesn’t affect me, but it will. Many of you are in one right now, going home alone, or eating at a restaurant alone, or what to do on a day off or specifically the holidays.
Even many who are in marriages that are struggling, feeling very alone, feeling like a person paddling with one paddle and going in circles because you feel like you’re the only one working on this marriage.
When you go on social media, that can be an incredibly isolating (ironically) isolating experience. When you make parenting decisions, you can feel very alone and again when you go to church. So, here’s what the Spirit seems to be saying to us from the example of Paul.
First of all, you are not alone in your aloneness. The Lord is standing by you. He is ready to strengthen you. You are not alone. Secondly, you are called by God in your aloneness. He is speaking to you. He has something for you. That doesn’t mean we don’t need to change our living conditions or make other decisions. That may be the case.
But first and foremost, we need to turn our eyes on him. I think it was two years ago today, I think it was our anniversary service, a young lady came forward while we were giving and praying and singing, and she said to me, “Will you pray for me? I am battling loneliness.” And she explained a little of what that meant, and we prayed. One year later, this past anniversary service, she came up and she just said I want to share with you what God has done this past year. And it was miraculous.
What do we do in our loneliness? Do we believe the lies and spiral downward, or do we turn to the Lord, a Father who is ready to receive us and ready to crush those lies and then asking God’s people, pray for me, help me.
Let’s walk through this together. So, what the enemy means to isolate us actually gets flipped and begins to become a bond of connection that propels the mission of God. That’s what he’s called us to. Your aloneness actually equips you to share with others.
Even in very, very practical ways if you know what it’s like to walk in and sit in church and have no one greet you, that feeling when we turn to God with that, propels us to say, I don’t want other people to have that experience. So, God, even though I should wear a bracelet because of everything inside of me in the way I’m wired, I want to be left alone.
I don’t feel comfortable meeting people I don’t know. You stand by me, you strengthen me, empower me to do what I can’t naturally do in and of myself. And when God’s people begin to think that way, it’s remarkable what he does. So, will you, in conclusion, will you let your loneliness lead you to the love of Jesus and the needs of your neighbor?
That’s the question the Spirit I believe is asking us and so let’s pray and ask him to do that and then we’re going to take an extended period of time. No rush. We’ve got all the time. If you would like someone to pray with you as you come forward, feel free to come to give to our harvest offering which is Lord willing financing projects all around the world and here in our community.
But we will have pastors, elders up front or nearby who would love to pray with you if the Spirit has spoken to you. I will not be here because I am going to run to Northwest to speak and then come back for the second service. But we have other elders and pastors who will be here and would love to pray with you. If you are visiting, we want you to know even though this is a very special day for us as a church as we remember God’s faithfulness as we give to these huge projects, we are not expecting you to give. This is not a time to pressure anybody. You can come forward if you’d like and throw a praise, give thanks or a prayer request in the baskets. If you feel more comfortable giving, there are boxes in the back for everybody if you don’t feel comfortable coming forward. But there’s something very special about this act of worship as we collectively move beyond our comfort zone and come to the Lord.
So, Father, you are drawing us even in our loneliness, that part of us that is so vulnerable. To feel alone is really an invitation from you to come. You are a good, good Father. You move toward us when we feel most vulnerable like you did with Paul.
And even when people fail us, sometimes not of their own fault. You’ve called them to do things. They’re very busy, they’re following your call. Others might fail us for less noble reasons. Regardless, we pray that you would purge us of any resentment, you would clear our hearts. Let us cast all of this on you and run to you, good, good Father. We pray that you would grow us as a church, that we would be more sensitive to those around us, that you would grow us in the ability to reach out beyond our comfort zones, to love those you put in our way.
Lord show us more creative ways to be available. We pray that you would flip what the enemy desires for our despair for the advancement of your gospel. So, Lord now as we pray, as we give, as we rejoice and celebrate, let us have a joyful time together as a family looking back and looking forward, reflecting on your goodness. May you receive all the glory, Lord, because this is all from you, through you, and for you. We thank you in Jesus’ name. Amen.